Research

What Researchers of Voter Fraud See in Trump’s New Commission

May 16, 2017

The Washington Post / Getty Images
President Trump (left) signed an executive order last week creating a commission to investigate alleged voter fraud that will be led by Kansas’ secretary of state, Kris Kobach (right), and Vice President Mike Pence.
President Trump signed an executive order last week establishing a commission to investigate the integrity of America’s election process. Voting integrity has been a concern for the president, who continues to allege rampant voter fraud in the 2016 election, without citing credible evidence.

As the seven-member commission begins its work, it might consider a paper by Dartmouth College scholars that’s based on a search for voter fraud in the November election. Before November 8, the paper’s authors saw accusations of a voter-fraud conspiracy coming, and were ready to investigate.

Well, sort of, said Sean J. Westwood, an assistant professor of government and an author of the paper. "To be perfectly honest with you, we expected Trump to lose, and when he lost, we expected him to attribute his loss to voter fraud," Mr. Westwood said.

With that in mind, last summer the Dartmouth team prepared to investigate some of the alleged threats to voting integrity raised by Mr. Trump during the campaign: noncitizens voting, votes cast in the names of deceased people, fraud by election officials, and fraud in electronic voting.

Mr. Trump won, however, so the team "let the project die for a couple of weeks," Mr. Westwood said.

"We just figured that maybe nobody would be interested in the results, given that Trump won and that these accusations would probably go away," said David Cottrell, a postdoctoral fellow in quantitative social science and another author of the paper.

Then a tweet and recurring comments by Mr. Trump gave the Dartmouth researchers a reason to push on with the project. "Our original purpose for the project has changed from responding to a recalcitrant loser to responding to a recalcitrant winner, which objectively doesn’t make much sense," Mr. Westwood said.

The study analyzed turnout in 2012 and 2016, and used that comparison as a means of looking for cases of possible fraud. Then the researchers used different tactics to evaluate each case, such as analyzing voter turnout alongside reported deaths in a given county, to examine the allegation about deceased voters.

As for the results: The researchers didn’t find any evidence to suggest widespread voter fraud. The authors of the paper note that their work doesn’t constitute a complete audit of the 2016 election results, but Mr. Cottrell doubts the Trump commission will do a full audit either. Going county by county "would be time-consuming, and there’s all sorts of feasibility issues related to that," including lost, discarded, or not-yet-released data.

‘Puffery’

The executive order signed by Mr. Trump does not specifically refer to the 2016 campaign, even as the president has mentioned it several times in interviews and on Twitter. Instead, the order creates a commission — led by the vice president, Mike Pence, and Kansas’ secretary of state, Kris Kobach — to "study vulnerabilities in voting systems used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations, improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting."

Mr. Westwood said he doubts that it will yield much useful information.

"It just seems to be puffery. It’s clearly the case that he’s made claims in the past of voter fraud of a magnitude that we would have been able to detect, and to detect quite easily, and haven’t," Mr. Westwood said. "So quite frankly, I don’t understand what this is going to do, or why he’s engaging in it."

A considerable amount of noise surrounds the discussion of alleged voter fraud. In some cases, politicians have misinterpreted research papers related to voter fraud to perpetuate a narrative that a large problem exists. That happened when the president himself, in a television interview, said a Pew report on outdated voter rolls confirmed actual voter fraud.

Voter registration has often been mentioned as a possible source of voting fraud, as there are cases of voters registered in multiple states. That doesn’t mean, however, that those registered in multiple states actually voted in multiple states (close confidants of Mr. Trump are among those who have been registered in more than one state).

It’s difficult to find a correlation between the voter-registration claims and illegal votes, Mr. Westwood said.

“The kind of fraud that he is asserting ... just doesn't exist, and when it does exist, it's likely a result of clerical error and not a result of malicious intent.”
"Essentially what they [other researchers] find is the kind of fraud that he is asserting — dead voters, multiple votes from voters registered in multiple states — just doesn’t exist, and when it does exist, it’s likely a result of clerical error and not a result of malicious intent," he said.

Mr. Cottrell said the discourse on voter fraud sometimes gets confused by irrelevant factors. For instance, in New Hampshire, where he works, he often hears debate over whether college students should count as residents and therefore be able to vote there. In fact, they meet the legal requirement to vote but are sometimes described as votes that shouldn’t count.

"People may disagree with that," he said, "but those aren’t fraudulent votes."

Studying What, Exactly?

Mr. Trump’s order directs the commission to seek out irregularities in the registration and voting processes, but the Dartmouth researchers aren’t sure what the commission is looking for. Mr. Cottrell is concerned that an election audit may have partisan motivations, which would void a fair examination.

So what would a good-faith effort to study the election process look like? "I’m not sure I have an answer for that, or a good answer for that," Mr. Cottrell said.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law last week called Mr. Trump’s commission a "sham." A report by the Brennan Center on the 2016 election found that, of 23.5 million votes surveyed, an estimated 30 incidents of noncitizen voting were referred for further investigation or prosecution.

In some states, the solution to voting concerns has been to push for tougher voting and voter-registration laws. But on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Republican leaders in North Carolina who sought to defend laws, struck down by the courts, that reduced early voting and required photo IDs for voters. Those laws, a lower court ruled, disproportionately affected minority voters.

Mr. Westwood said laws such as North Carolina’s are a detriment to the voting process that the commission is seeking to improve.

"That’s the ultimate irony," Mr. Westwood said. "I think the way you improve the voting process is to remove the registration restrictions that we’ve put into place and to make it easier for individuals to vote early. The reforms that are necessary are exactly the reforms that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are against."